IMPACT JORNALISM DAY 2015: ENVIRONMENT

Fighting forest fires with foam

A firefighter from Balikpapan, Indonesia, spraying a foam extinguishing agent at a test site in Japan. Using foam on peatland fires blocks the supply of oxygen to the peat and extinguishes flames within.
A firefighter from Balikpapan, Indonesia, spraying a foam extinguishing agent at a test site in Japan. Using foam on peatland fires blocks the supply of oxygen to the peat and extinguishes flames within.PHOTO: KITAKYUSHU FOUNDATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF INDUSTRY, SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

This story was first published on June 20, 2015

A JAPANESE invention may go some way towards helping Indonesia contain forest fires that break out in peatlands.

A foam extinguishing agent has been jointly developed by the city government, a private company and a university in Kita-Kyushu.

They hope to contain forest fires with the foam, which permeates the soil more easily than water and puts out fires more effectively.

A test has been scheduled in Indonesia this month to test the effectiveness of fighting fire with foam.

Peat is created when remnants of vegetation, such as trees and mosses, are carbonated without decaying, and accumulated over thousands of years. If the peat catches fire, it spreads deeply into the soil, emitting a large amount of carbon dioxide.

Balikpapan is a city on the eastern coast of Indonesia's Kalimantan region where one of the largest peatlands in the world is located. Oil palm plantation developers often burn off forests to secure land because it is easier and less costly than using chemicals to kill insects on the sites.

In 2007, the University of Kitakyushu, Shabondama Soap - based in Kita-Kyushu - and the city government's Fire and Disaster Management Bureau jointly developed the foam extinguishing agent.

The dried surface of peatlands contains a high level of oxygen. Because of that, they repel water and, as a result, make it difficult for water to reach the peat.

By covering the surface with foam, it blocks the supply of oxygen to the peat, and extinguishes flames within the layers.

The move to test out the method in Indonesia is part of the Japan International Cooperation Agency's grassroots technological efforts.

The three-year project was launched in 2013 with a budget of 60 million yen (S$652,000).

Its main aim is to prevent fires in peatlands on the upper streams of a lake that is serving as a main source of drinking water for residents in Balikpapan.

When fires occur in peatlands, the top layer of the soil flows into the lake, polluting the water.

RYUNOSUKE KANAYAMA/ASAHI SHIMBUN (JAPAN)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2016, with the headline 'Fighting forest fires with foam'. Print Edition | Subscribe